Blue Sulphur Springs was once one of the region’s top destinations. Now the community is working to save it from ruin.
Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Nikki Bowman
We West Virginians tend to tell ourselves the same story about our past. We’re descended from hardscrabble mountain folk, we think—pioneers who settled here despite the rough terrain and hard winters. This place was a hinterlands, where no one else in the country would dare go, let alone live.
Margaret Hambrick, president for the board of the Greenbrier Historical Society, thinks this is important, because the stories we tell ourselves about the past make a difference today, for better or for worse. We carry ourselves differently because of them—size ourselves up using a different measure. That’s why Hambrick takes issue with that common appraisal of West Virginia. “People in our neck of the woods think that we’ve always been a backwater, that there was nothing here,” she says. “But in the 1830s that just wasn’t the case.”
Consider, for instance, Blue Sulphur Springs. You could think of it as a cousin to The Greenbrier, in nearby White Sulphur Springs, or Berkeley Springs in Morgan County. In the 1830s Blue Sulphur Springs was home to a mineral spa that was known throughout the East for its fresh mountain air and curative water. Wealthy families would leave behind disease-ridden cities to vacation in resort towns like this one—presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren stayed in Blue Sulphur Springs, as did Senator Henry Clay and General Robert E. Lee. At one point, Blue Sulphur Springs had a large three-story hotel with a veranda, a smattering of small cottages, and a sprawling, manicured lawn.
But unlike the fates of those better-known resorts, most of the main buildings at Blue Sulphur Springs were destroyed in a fire in the second half of the 19th century, leaving behind only a Greek-style pavilion covering the freshwater spring itself. Instead of growing into a 20th century tourist destination, Blue Sulphur Springs faded into obscurity. For more than a century the property has been used as little more than a cow pasture and a scenic spot for family picnics, and the springhouse has deteriorated with each passing year.
A Historic Emergency
Michael Mills is scrolling through some photos on his laptop, looking for images that will help him describe the condition of the springhouse at Blue Sulphur Springs. He stops at two photos of the historic structure, a square, Greek Revival-style building with 12 columns and a peaked roof that covers the well of spring water beneath it. One photo shows the pavilion as it looked when it was built in 1834, the other as it is today—a muddy floor surrounded by an unstable foundation, crumbling roof held aloft by massive pillars. “Here’s one where you can see where the columns have fallen in,” Mills says. “That’s six inches off from where it should be.” He points to the screen and you can see what he means: 150 years ago the columns bordering the pavilion stood straight and tall, but now some of them are slumping inward at the top. The building’s roof looks like it is in danger of collapsing.
Mills is the founder of the Mills Group and lead preservation architect on a project to restore this historic structure at Blue Sulphur Springs. He was hired by the Greenbrier Historical Society in 2013, when the property’s owner, Rebecca Fleshman Lineberry, gifted the pavilion and the two acres surrounding it to the preservation group. The society created a new group to focus on the restoration of the historic structure—they’re calling it Friends of the Blue.
The first thing Friends of the Blue did was make emergency repairs to the structure. “There are very few historic emergencies, but this was,” Hambrick says. Wood cribbing was installed to stabilize the crumbling foundation and wires were used to support the leaning columns. The idea is to keep the structure in one piece until it’s time for a second round of more extensive repairs, probably sometime in the summer of 2015. “It’s not by any means done and safe yet, and that’s what we’re working toward next,” Hambrick says. “When we finish the next phase we should have a good foundation under it and the columns mostly restored.” Once the second round of repairs is finished, Friends of the Blue hopes to move on to a more comprehensive restoration project.
The organization wants to make Blue Sulphur Springs a place that is suitable for tourists, history buffs, and local families out for a weekend drive.
Befriending the Blue
This is where you come in. Friends of the Blue has scrounged up enough money, with public funding and some private donors, for basic repairs at Blue Sulphur Springs, but the comprehensive restoration project has yet to be funded. The restoration phase of this project is important—while repairs will keep the pavilion’s roof from falling in, it’s the restoration work that will really transform it from ruins to community asset. But that restoration phase is almost as expensive as it is important, so Friends of the Blue is turning to the community for help.
On March 1, 2015 the group launched a fundraising campaign on the online fundraising platform Kickstarter. It hopes to raise $25,000 that way. “We’re being cautiously optimistic with that figure,” Hambrick says. Already, though, the members of Friends of the Blue have been overwhelmed by the surge of support they’ve seen in the community. “There are just so many people who find it absolutely heartwarming that this Greek pavilion is built out in the middle of a pasture field and that it’s been there for 200 years,” she says. “It is simply near and dear to the hearts of a lot of people.”